Monday, 15 February 2010

The definition of "conspiracy theory"

I have recently taken to commenting on an anti-vaccination website that goes by the name Child Health Safety (I won't link to the site because I think it, along with it's ilk are dangerous, but obviously Google can find it for you in a jiffy). While bringing a skeptical view to these kinds of sites is a kind of pointless exercise, in that I am fairly certain that I will not be changing the views of anyone who regularly visits them, still, sometimes I just can't help myself. And, to their credit, the authors of this particular website at least allow dissenting comments (and always reply to them), unlike other similar websites that militantly moderate comments to remove any contrary remarks (see here).

After a couple of comments where I tried to point out studies that contradicted the studies that they were promoting, and they pointed out studies that contradicted my studies that contradicted their studies, etc. (you know how it goes), I linked to a British study that shows that full spectrum autism rates are similar in all age groups, which contradicts the website's claim that autism rates in children are going through the roof, and by a rather tenuous correlation, vaccines are to blame. Here is my comment:
It appears that 1% of 30 year olds have ASD, in line with the percentage of children currently diagnosed with the disorder, and way higher than the diagnosis rate 25 years ago. It is sad that many of these adults were not correctly diagnosed as children and did not (and still don’t) receive the support that they really need.
With the editor replying
[ED: We suggest you read our article here regarding the adult "autistics". They don't exist:- UK “Faked” National Autism Data To Declare MMR Vaccine “Safe”]
Once I got over the crassness of their suggestion that adult autism sufferers don't exist, I read their article (hint: the title pretty much says it all). I then somewhat cheekily replied
Hi again. I’ve read your article and I’ve read the NHS report. I read one highly informative, well written, properly justified and statistically sound report, and one rambling conspiracy theory. I’ll leave you to decide which is which.
And here is where it got interesting, because, leaving aside all notions of whether what they were writing was correct or not, they were, undoubtedly alleging a massive conspiracy of universities, public health bodies and the government to - as they say - "Declare MMR Vaccine "Safe"". I cannot really see another explanation. Apparently I hit a nerve, though, as the editor replied
[ED: Hah. When people fall back on alleging "conspiracy theories" you know the argument is won. Thanks for your "balanced" summary.
Others can make their own minds up on the basis of the overwhelmingly clear evidence and facts. You will clearly never be able to throw off the blinkers.]
OK, so obviously I was being dismissive with my claim, as we all know that the term "conspiracy theory" has taken on a pejorative meaning in modern times, but still I felt aggrieved that they would deny this. So I decided to push the point home (and hopefully regain the high ground I had lost with my flippant remark above) and in my next comment I gave a straightforward question.
Just one more question, and then I’ll go away. Do you believe that there is a conspiracy by the government (and public service), multiple universities (and their researchers) and pharmaceutical companies in multiple countries to use vast sums of taxpayer money to provide increasingly large doses of ineffective vaccines that are known to harm children?
And the inevitable reply (broken up so can I comment on each point)
[ED: Daryl, thanks. Even when you are presented with the kind of evidence shown in this article you are unable to accept it and fall back on accusing people of conspiracy theories. No one needs them.
Firstly, I don't believe I was 'accusing' anybody of anything, I was simply stating a self-evident fact and then asking a (I admit somewhat rhetorical) question. But the clincher came with the next statement.
There is a long and well documented history of corruption in the pharmaceutical industry and commercial medicine running through many levels, including government and medical publishing. You can start with the thalidomide scandal, psychiatric drugs and run through them all including recent ones like Vioxx.
Reading this, the only conclusion I can come to that doesn't involve deceit is that there was a typo in their response. Where they wrote "No one needs them." they meant to say "No one needs them. Oh, except this one". It goes on.
Do you believe they never happened? Some people believe the holocaust never happened. Is that the category you are in?
*swallows own vomit*
Who needs conspiracy theories when corruption, greed and self interest work pretty well all by themselves.]
While I can totally understand why people are uncomfortable with the label "conspiracy theorist" the definition of the term itself cannot really be debated. It is not just crazy people that believe in conspiracy theories, and not all of them are wrong, either. For example, I genuinely believe that there is a conspiracy by some highly polluting industries, some scientist and some government officials to deliberately and dishonestly promote doubt about the science of global warming, for their own personal gain. That is my conspiracy theory, and I'm sticking to it until proven wrong.

So in conclusion I would like to reclaim the term "conspiracy theory" from its current form as a slur and return it to its traditional definition, as a succinct, descriptive term. I would also like to invent a new term, "conspiracy theory denialists" to describe someone - such as the aforementioned Ed. - who refuses to admit that they believe a conspiracy is afoot when they obviously do. I would also like to submit the following definition to whichever dictionary will have it (first part taken from here):
Conspiracy theory (n.) A theory seeking to explain a disputed case or matter as a plot by a secret group or alliance rather than an individual or isolated act.
E.g. “There is a long and well documented history of corruption in the pharmaceutical industry and commercial medicine running through many levels, including government and medical publishing.”
What's you conspiracy theory, or are you a conspiracy theory denialist?

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